Recently I was sent a graphic novel, or as we might have called it in the past, a collection of comic strips. This hardback volume, published (with the help of crowdfunding) by comics aficionado Nat Karmichael, contains artist Monty Wedd’s 146-part ‘true crime’ biography from the 1970s, Ned Kelly. Wedd was a history buff as well as an accomplished artist, so his visual detail was impressive, as was his day-by-day scrutiny of the short lives of the Kelly Gang (which, like the short lives of Elvis and Marilyn, have been chronicled profusely over the decades).
Comics seem like an ideal medium for the story of Ned Kelly. Then again, so does everything else. Kelly is such a folk legend, it’s a bonus that he actually existed. His story inspired the world’s first feature film in 1906 (a mere 26 years after his death), kickstarting the Australian film industry, in which bushrangers were as cool as the gunslingers of Hollywood westerns. He has also been the star of folk song, television, musical comedy and, my personal favourite, an alternate-world novel (by a Sydney-based science fiction master, the late A. Bertram Chandler) in which he survives, starts a revolution against his British rulers and becomes the first President of Australia.
The comic strip, however, didn’t need to change history to be thrilling. (At least, no more than your average based-on-a-true-story drama.) Wedd had made his name in the 1950s with some very popular adventure comic books, most famously Captain Justice, about a (fictitious) bushranger. Bushrangers were one of his specialities. His next comic strip, Bold Ben Hall, told of the life of another bushranger.
Ben Hall has also been popular with mythmakers (including film-maker Matthew Holmes, who has started a feature film about Australia’s second-favourite outlaw), but the appeal of Kelly is unbeatable. Strangely, our film-makers haven’t had much success with Kelly’s story since around 1920. The 1970 film starring Mick Jagger (a casting decision that would have seemed commercial astute at the time) was a notorious failure. Heath Ledger did slightly better in 2003, though the film didn’t bring the crowds.
But reading the comic strip, one is struck by one lesson it can provide Australia’s constantly beleaguered film industry. The most famous image of Kelly is his armour, even though he only wore it for less than a day (and it ultimately wasn’t much use to him). The armour was the most famous image of the 1906 film, and was missing from the promotional posters of the 1970 and 2003 versions (which foolishly thought that their respective stars’ faces were enough). Unwieldy as it was, the armour turned Kelly into a masked avenger. Thanks to the mask, he was a matinée idol and comic strip hero — a superhero of sorts. Not one of those do-gooders like Superman or Batman, who will not kill even the most terrible villains, but one of those vigilantes like Mad Max or Wolverine, who will happily kill if that’s what it takes.
Australians have always loved super-hero comics. In 1951, during the ‘golden age’ of comics, 50 million comic books were sold in Australia. These included Australian reprints of US titles, as well as the adventures of local heroes like Dr Mensana, Captain Midnight, the Panther, Silver Starr and the Crimson Comet (who was created by John Dixon, the artist behind Air Hawk and the Flying Doctor). Even in 1983, well after the golden age, Australians spent $17 million just on comics published by the US publisher Marvel — considerably more (on average) than Americans. Marvel even announced a new character called Captain Australia (alias Keith Bennett, son of a sheep station owner), whose name sounded bushranger-like. Nothing ever became of him.
We did our own superheroes perfectly well, thank you. A few years later, The Southern Squadron — a superhero sitcom starring a Melbourne bogan, a Sydney metrosexual, a tough feminist and Croatian werewolf — was selling considerably better in Australia than any of the American imports, despite being published in black-and-white rather than the full-colour treatment enjoyed by Wonder Woman or the X-Men.
Nowadays, Australia’s superheroes seem to have faded from memory. The makers of The Southern Squadron later broke into the US market, leaving their own creations behind. Still, if you have a copy of The Crimson Comet or Captain Midnight packed away in your grandfather’s attic, you might well start a bidding war on eBay.
Meanwhile, of course, American superheroes are still filling movie theatres, often played by Australians. Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine (who’s Canadian) and Chris Hemsworth plays Thor (who’s technically from Asgard, realm of the gods, though he’s often referred to as ‘Norse’). These generally rely on Hollywood budgets, but Australia has the talent to make an impressive-looking movie. (Take, for example, the special effects teams behind The Matrix or The Wolverine.) Some of our best movies this year — The Rover, Predestination, These Final Hours — are sci-fi films that look considerably more expensive than they are.
So perhaps we should consider spinning our superhero comics into movies. Sure, not many people under 40 have heard of the Southern Squadron, but nor were most people familiar with Iron Man before Marvel Films made him one of their biggest properties.
But what happened to the Southern Squadron, anyway? Their creator, David de Vries, now lives in South Australia, where he dabbles in (among other things) indie film-making. His work so far, including the suspense thriller Carmilla Hyde (2009), shows that his visual sense translates well to the movies. A movie based on The Southern Squadron would need to be tongue-in-cheek, but then it always was, from their first appearance, when Nightfighter — the most racist, sexist, obnoxious (and hence, most popular) member of the team — yelled out ‘Hold on to your braincells, we’re here!!!’
At first, the idea of Australian superhero films might seem ludicrous. But compared to some successful Australian films of the past (come on, are our superheroes really as weird as The Piano?), it makes perfect sense.